FIDH Tribune – Spring will be a Long Time Coming for Ales Bialiatski

Altermondes, №30, June 2012

BELARUS. From the moment of Alexander Lukashenko’s problematic reelection as president in 2010, the situation with human rights in the country has continued to worsen. A symbol of these crackdowns is the arrest of Ales Bialiatski, chairman of the Human Rights Center Viasna, in August 2011.

Souhayr Belhassen, president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)

On November 24, 2011, Ales Bialiatski, FIDH vice-president and chairman of the Human Rights Center Viasna, was sentenced to 4 and 1/2 years in a maximum security prison and seizure of all his property, including the Viasna office. This sentence was the direct result of his human rights activities. Charged with « tax evasion on an especially large scale », he has been imprisoned in Belarus since August 4, 2011. Convicted at the end of an unfair trial, our vice-president and friend is currently serving his punishment at Maximum Security Colony No. 2 in Babruysk, where he must perform correctional labor. His detention conditions are very difficult, but this tireless defender of freedom never complains: « I am worried for those who are on the other side of the wall », he wrote from prison, adding « As for me, I am in the exact place where a human rights defender should be under this rotten regime ».

It must be said that the harsh crackdowns that Belarusian society has faced after the critically important 2010 presidential elections have only intensified from the time of his arrest over eight months ago. Ruinous new laws have been adopted to ban mass actions and smother association.

Human rights defenders are now being prosecuted more than even before. It goes without saying that the Human Rights Center Viasna, which has been led by Ales since its founding in 1996, continues to be held at gunpoint by the government. Valentin Stefanovich, deputy chairman of this organization, was recently prohibited from leaving Belarus. The same thing has also happened to many other human rights defenders. Today in Belarus there are a total of 13 political prisoners who have been subjected to enormous pressure, deprived of their attorneys, tried several times in a row, and received ever harsher sentences. We should not be deceived by the recent releases on April 14 and 15 2012 of two opposition leaders—2010 presidential candidate Andrei Sannikau and his campaign manager Dmitri Bandarenka. These releases are not a sign of some sort of liberalization on the part of the Lukashenko regime: these opposition activists were released only after severe physical and emotional torture that was used on them as a way of forcing them to sign a letter to the president asking to be pardoned…

Nevertheless, their release was possible only due to international pressure. European Union countries hardened their tone by recalling their ambassadors from Belarus in late February. However, the sanctions taken against Belarus must be targeted to aim at the very heart of the regime. The EU’s dual strategy to vehemently express its support for Belarusian civil society and to place restrictions on the government and all individuals close to the Lukashenko regime (specifically by freezing accounts and denying visas) will only be truly effective if EU countries act as one.

However, right now the economic interests of various countries are hindering the implementation of this strategy and are helping Lukashenko and his associates escape sanctions. Thus, Yuri Chizh, a businessman who is close to Lukashenko and falls within the scope of EU sanctions, was recently able to conclude a large contract with the Slovenian company Riko to build a luxury hotel in the Belarusian capital of Minsk.

In working towards the unconditional release of all political prisoners and our vice-president Ales, EU countries must act as one against the last dictatorship in Europe. As Ales wrote from the penal colony: « The wind is sweeping the dry snow along the street, white snowdrifts are snaking along the back asphalt. When we were in isolation, we spent almost all our time in the courtyard under the spring sun. Now it has disappeared almost completely and comes out only rarely». Spring in Belarus is definitely a long time coming…

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